A Question of Translation

The question of translation looms large as I consider next steps in this Psalm pilgrimage. If I have set before me the ultimate goal of memorizing the Psalms through the power of music, I must make a translation decision – and that decision will drive a host of consequences down the road.

If this pilgrimage were a solo act, a practice of individual prayer and contemplation, the answer would be easy. I could mix and match, or choose whatever translation I like, or make hybrid translation – including trying my hand at my own translations. On my own, I wouldn’t have to care about issues such as translation or music copyright. My collection of Psalm scripture songs could be as eclectic as it already is, drawing from endless sources and adding my own peculiar and distinct compositions whenever the Spirit moved me to do so.

At the end of that rabbit hole (composing personal, Spirit-led – hopefully – Psalm songs), I could compose an entirely new Psalter of scripture songs, based on multiple, and/or hybrid collage translations, including my own translations from scratch. And who would care but me? Such an undertaking would take a while, of course, but I’m happy to walk and dance and sing this pilgrimage for what remains of my life.

But I am not on this pilgrimage alone. More and more, I feel compelled to take notice of my companions on this Way – both for ways in which I can give and receive – because we are bound together in relationship. And that way of relationship involves an utterly complex decision – or series of decisions – about translation. Of course I bring something to this conversation: I am committed to a faithful, dynamic equivalent translation for our time and for all people – female and male created in the one image of God – and which invites and compels us to open ourselves to this transforming word, rather than to see ourselves and our presuppositions of truth in a mirror-idol of our own making.

I had hoped that the ICEL Psalter would answer, and perhaps it will…

And wouldn’t it be loverly if the lyrics actually danced instead of clunking along in the ill-fitting armor that suits up ancient (dead for so long) Hebrew with contemporary English? Tim Plimpton asked about Hebrew (seriously), and mentioned the NKJV (which both Esther Mui and Scott Brenner favor). I know the KJV/NKJV might be lyrical, but I can no longer go to a place that shuts out so many, for whom God has called me to preach. I had hoped that the ICEL Psalter would answer, and perhaps it will as I spend more time with it – yet this translation is as little known among mainstream Christians as it is bound up in copyright.

Even as I write, I’m thinking of the mash-up solution – a polyglot sampler that tastes of the relentless bounty in this wide open harvest field. Why be troubled or bothered by the Constantinian conceit to overlay some mythical, all-encompassing, elusive template on this writhing creative spirit that grows wild everywhere along this path. Wouldn’t that answer for the prolific fecundity of passionate desire and relentless searching? Even as I spoke with Tim, not too long ago, i wondered about the invitation not to choose one translation principle at the expense of all the others.

So, perhaps this problem is also an invitation to revel in the absurd proliferation of creative translation into words and music – appropriate for a pilgrimage community bewildering in our diversity, defying at every turn every attempt to categorize and sort us into ever larger, destructive and incomprehensible patterns. I am not a pattern. The Psalms themselves poke fun at our idolatrous attempts to categorize them: laments give way to praise – cautionary bridges interrupt songs of thanksgiving. Individual songs tap into the voice of the community. The Psalter evolves as we sing and pray together in our creative diversity.

The Psalter is a launching pad, a river that flows from the heart of God to the sea of God’s people, and God’s creation, scattered over all the earth and throughout the universe, quivering and resonating – in tension and resolution, yet always utterly connected in ways which consistently defy our attempts to describe and conscribe. Like prayer itself – not the words, but the life we live in communion with God – without ceasing.

Just now, I am blessed in the midst of this tension by a setting of Psalm 8 composed by Dan Forrest that transcends this tension, in Hebrew and in English, and of course, in the mysterious language of music – love and wonder in any language.

The Memory Castle – A Homecoming

Just over three weeks ago, I began the task of memorizing a key (Marian Psalter) verse for all 150 Psalms, using the concept of a Memory Castle – a symbolic route through (in this case) ten rooms of my house, in each of which I identified 15 objects or portals to which I could attach a different verse from the Marian Psalter.

I would first connect a different verse in a decade of verses with a portal in each of the ten rooms of my castle. Then I would make ten flashcards, with the portal on the front and the verse on the back. Then I would revisit the verses and expand the ways in which I needed to reinforce my ability to remember particular words and phrases of the verse.

These reinforcing ideas did not necessarily have anything to do with the portal itself, although sometimes they did. I had read that the practice of using a memory castle had more to do with placing elaborate, nonsensical visual connections at a particular portal (because the portal could be used to remember other lists or series).

A couple of examples might help to illustrate the concept.

The portal for Psalm 69 – “Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.” is my bathroom sink. For some reason, the first phrase came easily to me, but not the second one. I was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, so I imagined Jim saying the verse, and complaining at the end, “so dat I am in dis pear” (the fruit was a prison). The concept of a man imprisoned in a pear proved easy to remember.

None of this had anything to do with my bathroom sink, but for some reason, the sink became linked in my mind with Jim’s peculiar troubles in his pear prison. The Memory Castle worked.

One portal was a chair – and I imagined an artist named Karl Kohlhase sitting in the chair singing a version of the verse I was committing to memory. Another was a pair of masks hanging on our dining room wall, which I imagined saying “Why is it, O sea, that you flee; O Jordan, that you turn back?” Repetition helped, of course, but this additional memory practice of a Memory Castle broke down the work into more manageable segments.

It took me three weeks, working a couple of hours a day. I would typically review the ten verses I had just learned, along with the ten previous verses. It seemed important to allow a little time between repeats, so that I could identify where the trouble spots were (Lord, God, or You? – does the verse include the connector “and”?). I also like using the rosary beads to mark where I happen to be.

I am able to recite all 150 verses in just under an hour. At this point, I often take the time to review my flashcards or database to check the accuracy of my memory – and at times I still get stuck on a word or a phrase. I believe I could cut this recitation time in half with repetition.

So what now?

  1. Through repetition, these verses will become second nature to me. I have already been able to use them praying with others, individually and in worship. Eventually, I hope to be able to recite a verse, given the number of a Psalm, as well as bring to mind a blessing, praise or lament from this collection in my mind and heart.
  2. I have already experimented with singing some of these memory verses – some of which have ready-made tunes attached to them, and some of which I compose myself. I hope to be able to sing all of the memory verses.
  3. I hope to be able to expand this repertoire to include – as an initial step, the incipit (or first verse) of the Psalm, if this is not the memory verse. And then, as a second step, to memorize the entire Psalm, probably with a scripture song as a memory aid. For this undertaking, I must decide whether to use existing songs (in various translations), or to convert or compose songs using the NRSV.